Vetus Registrum

The Vetus Registrum is useful for nearly any research topic covered by its period, but holds almost as many mysteries as it solves.

Vetus Registrum

One of the treasures of the Lincoln College Archive is the Vetus Registrum. Begun in the 1470s by Fellow William Bethome, it is part of a series of four College Registers which are still in ceremonial use today. Bethome began the volume by copying out the early College charters which start with the foundation 50 years earlier. He continued by making an inventory of the books in the Library and those available for borrowing amongst the fellowship ('election register'), alongside other items of value at Lincoln; this forms a rare contemporary record of library benefactions and reading interest: important evidence of the intellectual life and the doctrine of the early College. 

William Bethome moved from Lincoln to Eton College from 1482-1488; Eton’s archives provide corroborating examples of his handwriting in their accounts. Bethome was elected Rector of Lincoln College on 2 November 1488 and continued his vade mecum on his return to Oxford. One presumes he used the Register to support the administration of the fledgling institution, which had been recently refounded by Bishop Rotherham. College orders from meetings, copy letters, notes from the Bishop of Lincoln‘s Visitations, information about estates, fellows and students begin to be recorded during his Rectorship and continue in later registers through the end of the 20th century.

The Vetus Registrum is useful for nearly any research topic covered by its period, but holds almost as many mysteries as it solves. Continuing until around 1640, there is an overlap with the Medium Register by 63 years. The volume was foliated at a later date, evidenced by the hand and ink type. It does not run chronologically for reasons currently not understood, which frustrates most who use it. It also has a notable amount of pages missing post-foliation. Were these pages blank, or has the information recorded there disappeared for good? The Register’s eleventh quire was detached, stored separated, then re-inserted at a later date. The list of intrigues could go on at length. 

Because of the intrinsic value of this core record to the College, it has recently had treatment from the conservators at the Oxford Conservation Consortium. It is constructed from paper with parchment covers, and conservators noted a stitching pattern of particular interest because two different styles were used in its four rows. Structural evidence points to an earlier Gothic binding predating the limp one extant.[i] . The sewing guards formed from a recycled psalter, some featuring hymns. The text-block is of handmade paper made on a single-faced laid mould, and watermarked with a capital M and fleur de lys, not yet matched to any known watermarks. 

In 1452, Fellow John Shyrburn gave Lincoln three quires of royal paper in his will, left in the College tower, for inscribing the names of Fellows, Benefactors, and others of note. Perhaps we will eventually re-discover if the Vetus Registrum was produced from that same paper, amongst the many other mysteries contained in this gem from Lincoln’s historic collections.


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[i] Report from the Oxford Conservation Consortium description of the binding of the Vetus Registrum, Jane Eagan, 10 May 2017.

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